By the time White Sox center fielder Luis Robert was batting .467 against the Astros in the American League Division Series, his heroics had become common place.
“I honestly think that right now we are just seeing the surface of all the things that he can do,” White Sox veteran José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo, following the White Sox' ALDS exit.
After debuting at the start of the shortened 2020 season, Robert played just 68 regular season games in 2021, a torn hip flexor sidelining him for three months. But if he’d played enough to be leader-board eligible, Robert’s .338 batting average would have led Major League Baseball.
So, how did Robert go from a solid debut season (.233/.302/.436) to an absolutely dominant second year (.338/378/.567), albeit in a small sample size? Another set of numbers help illustrate the adjustment he made from Year 1 to Year 2.
“This year, I’ve been more selective at home plate,” Robert said in October, “and I know the pitchers now know I’m not swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone, and they have to come at me. I’m ready for the good pitches, and I’ve been able to hit hard those pitches and have good results.”
Robert’s chase rate was about the same from 2020 (40 percent) to 2021 (39.7 percent), but that figure is misleading without context. The difference was which out-of-zone pitches Robert chose to swing at.
Statcast’s swing/take profiles break the area over the plate into four attack regions. Around the heart of the plate is the “shadow,” which extends just inside and just outside the edges of the strike zone. The “chase” region is just outside of that. Further out are waste pitches.
From Robert’s first season to second, he went from swinging at 41 percent of pitches in the chase region to 31 percent, an improvement. The out-of-zone pitches he swung at in 2021 were concentrated in the shadow, and those pitches were often ones he could hit. Robert’s chase contact rate jumped from 42.1 percent to 49 percent.
Those figures cover the first half of Robert’s explanation, his improved plate discipline. But the other half was just as important.
Robert’s in-zone swing rate increased from 80.7 percent in 2020 to 85.1 this year. More dramatically, his in-zone contact rate leapt from 68.9 percent to 83.6 percent.
"He looked like he didn't miss a beat when he came back (from the injured list)," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said at the GM meetings last month, "which was pretty remarkable because that's obviously a fairly catastrophic injury to endure in-season and return that same season from, much less return at an elite level from. That was really impressive. ... He showed a level of maturity that matched his talent."
If Abreu is right, that Robert’s 2021 performance was just a glimpse of the center fielder’s potential, the White Sox have plenty to look forward to in the years to come.
“Last year, I had a very good first month, and then the second month wasn't as good as I was expecting,” Robert said of his first season. “I learned from that, and now I'm just doing what I know that I can do and just enjoying the game."